Let’s End the Condemnation Derby

Lazy journalists (and some lazy activists) have an annoying habit I call the “Condemnation Derby”. It goes like this.

Every day, some people do things to which we might reasonably object. For example, tomorrow it might be:

(1) The Mayor of a city in Faroffistan had his thugs smash the printing presses of the town paper!
(2) A Senator who has long crusaded against drugs was photographed using cocaine!
(3) A Hollywood star slapped a waiter while calling him/her an ethnic slur!
(4) During a “hot mike” moment, a Congressman was heard calling his assistant “sugar tits”!
(5) Donald Trump tweeted (fill in here whatever awful tweet he did in the past 24 hours)!

Armed with such a list, the journalist starts ambush interviewing politicians, asking “Do you condemn [Insert here any of the above five]”. The politician may very well not even have heard of the incident at all. Maybe he or she will condemn in strong terms anyway. But if the politician doesn’t, the list gains a new item:

(6) Congressman/Senator/Mayor So-and-So REFUSED TO CONDEMN/DIDN’T CONDEMN STRONGLY ENOUGH (fill in any of #1-5 here)

The journalist can now ask the next person not only if they condemn #1-5, but also whether they condemn the politician who refused to condemn. And if they don’t condemn both, they become item #7. When these stories get traction as they sometimes do (particularly if activists play along), they evolve into “Even a week after (item here), Representative Smith STILL HASN’T CONDEMNED…”

Beyond being lazy, there are two problems with this type of journalism.

First, moral condemnation by public figures can still make a difference, but only if it used sparingly. When ever office holder is constantly being dragooned into condemning everything, it gives an out to someone who truly deserves condemnation “Yes, my pro-lynching comments were criticized, but so was last night’s lame joke on Will and Grace”.

Second, the act of condemnation by politicians often amounts to cheap grace. Our political leaders have power, with which comes responsibility to more than furrow a brow, express grave concern, frown angrily, chastise one’s colleague etc. We should care a lot less about whether officeholders mouth words of condemnation regarding things we don’t like and a lot more about whether they pass laws to make such things less prevalent.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

8 thoughts on “Let’s End the Condemnation Derby”

  1. I'd make an exception when the politician who is asked for comment is a supporter of the politician who has done something awful.

    1. I was thinking about this too. Often what we see is a dance to avoid criticizing some person or action when such criticism could get the politician in trouble with colleagues or funders. (With bonus points when that poltician has previously done loud sanctimonious turns about similar actions by someone they don't support.)

  2. I do not insist that politicians condemn everything objectionable in the news, but I regret it when they fail to praise something greatly deserving of praise.

    James Shaw, Jr., the hero of the Waffle House shooting last Sunday, has now raised over $165,000 for the victims of the shooting. In normal times, this might be deemed worthy of a presidential commendation, or even a nice Tweet from a presidential Twitter account.

    Not that this president is incapable of giving praise where praise is due. For example, he did commend Kanye West yesterday for flattering him on social media, which included a very nice Tweet featuring a picture of a MAGA baseball cap. It took real guts for West to do that.

    In normal times, we might be shocked by the incongruity of the case. Normal times were what we had long ago, and they are not likely to return unless abnormal times are recognized for what they are.

  3. Two thoughts:

    1) I found it very troubling after Charlottesville when something like 11 of the 12 members of Trump's business advisory council resigned, but not a single member of his religious advisory council said a peep. Let's just keep prayin' for the day when darkies will be less uppity, eh Jed? Yeah Luke. Mum's the word, and praise the Lord. I wanted SOMEONE in the religious hierarchy of this country to issue a goddamn condemnation. Their silence was a damning indictment of modern evangelical horse-shit hypocrisy.

    2) From your title, I thought this was going to be about PETA (e.g.) trying to cancel the Kentucky Derby. Phew, glad it's not that. The favorites almost never win, by the way, so if you want to put the safe money on heavy fave Justify, I'd play it as a quiniela with a pony in the 6-1 to 12-1 range.

    1. 1) It does seem a bit ironic on the surface, but the religious guys are in the business of understanding and deali
      ng with sinners. There's no incentive for them to bail out nor any need to do virtue signaling. The business guys have to show virtue bona fides or it could hurt their business interests.

      2) Same here, lol.

      1. I would accept the reasoning in (1) if the members of the religious advisory council had said something like what you said: "We're in the business of dealing with sin. Leaving at this point deprives us of precisely the influence and the platform we need in order to engage with this issue effectively." And, since biblical back-up always goes down well, they could even have added a bit from Esther 4:14 ("who knows whether you have not come into your position for just such a time as this?"). But they didn't. And they also didn't deal with the issue, either, as far as we can tell, with Trump, or with their followers.

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